Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 April 2004
Issue No. 685
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Treasuring peace

The first Tutankhamun exhibition to be held in Europe for more than two decades opened in the presence of Mrs Suzanne Mubarak. Nevine El-Aref attended the grand inauguration in Basel, Switzerland

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Mrs Suzanne Mubarak visits the inauguration of the Tutankhamun exhibition accompanied by the curator of the Egyptian Art Department at the Basel Museum Andre Wiese (photo: Mustafa Atia)

Against a deep rose-painted wall decorated with fine gilded foliage reliefs, the Basel Symphony Orchestra played a selection of early 20th century classical music. As sound filled the warm evening air of the grand hall in the Basel Museum of Ancient Art, elegantly dressed Swiss and Egyptian dignitaries and guests gathered to celebrate the grand opening of a new exhibition of treasures from the Pharaoh Tutankhamun collection, the first to be held in Europe for 23 years.

Delighted with the organisation of this memorable exhibition, which displays 120 objects that once belonged to the legendary Tutankhamun and other royal members of the XVIIIth Dynasty, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak described the exhibition as "Egypt's initiative to promote peace." Egypt's readiness to send, for the first time since 1981, precious and priceless pieces of its ancient art abroad was an expression of the country's appreciation for both the Swiss people's love for ancient Egyptian civilisation and Switzerland's role in promoting peace and humanitarian assistance throughout the world.

"This event is a token of our appreciation for the strong role which Switzerland has always played and continues to play in enhancing peace, promoting international law and providing invaluable humanitarian assistance, as well as observing a neutral position whilst defending people's right to development and freedom from coercion and occupation worldwide," Mrs Mubarak said.

She emphasised that Ancient Egyptian civilisation should not be perceived as a distant epoch, but rather one that continued to permeate Egyptian traditions, beliefs, norms and lifestyle up to the present time. She added that Pharaonic civilisation was not confined within Egypt's boundaries. It had a profound influence over, and interactions with, the creative innovations of other ancient civilisations, particularly those of Greece and Rome.

"Egypt has also embraced a culture of peace since the dawn of history," Mrs Mubarak said, adding that because civilisation could not thrive and evolve in times of turbulence, it was an Ancient Egyptian Pharaoh who signed the first ever peace treaty in history, now on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York. This treaty was concluded between Egypt and the Hittites during the reign of Pharaoh Ramses II, and since that time it has served as a nucleus for what we now acknowledge as international law in its rudimentary form.

"Egyptian people not only loved and believed in peace then ... they are staunch believers and defenders of peace today. It was true during the era of Tutankhamun and it is equally true at present," Mrs Mubarak said.

The exhibition on display in the Basel Museum of Ancient Art and the Ludwig Collection from 6 May to 30 September shows 49 objects from the Tutankhamun collection and 70 royal funerary treasures from the XVIIIth Dynasty.

As the first exhibition to be held in Europe for so long, the treasured collection of objects has captivated Switzerland and neighbouring countries. Posters featuring the splendid golden mask of Tutankhamun decorate the arrival hall at Basel airport, the city's main roads adorned with Pharaonic posters showing New Kingdom Pharaohs, queens and the gods of Ancient Egypt. Gift shops are overflowing with replicas of Egyptian artefacts, including canopic jars, statuettes, scarabs, mummy tines and ushabti figurines. You cannot turn on the TV without chancing upon a special show about the mysteries of Egypt's Pharaonic past. Even chocolate bars distributed to guests in hotels and on the gala night bear the face of the boy-King Tutankhamun.

Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Zahi Hawass calls this exhibition an "afterlife journey", offering not only a unique glimpse of Ancient Egyptian religious beliefs, but also displaying the beginning of the zenith of Ancient Egyptian art that marks the New Kingdom. "It was an era of great wealth, power and stability," Hawass said. He described the exhibition as one of the best ways to promote Egypt as a unique cultural and tourist destination. Europeans were fascinated by "King Tut's" collection, he said, and he believed it would attract not only the Swiss but also other visitors. The museum is anticipating about half a million visitors to the exhibition, which is being financed by the United Bank of Switzerland (UBS).

While accompanying Mrs Mubarak on her tour of the splendid collection, visitors to the museum were first guided to a multimedia introductory room to learn about the Pharaohs' journey to the next world. They were then conducted to the funerary objects from the XVIIIth Dynasty (1550-1292 BC), which are located in a subterranean gallery. On the way they pass through a replica of a funerary gate lined with two life-size statues of Anubis, the god of the dead. Black and white photographic enlargements of Howard Carter at various stages of the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb decorate the walls of the exhibition hall.

The display is divided into themed groups: early royal tombs from the XVIIIth Dynasty, the tomb of Yuya and Tuya, the grandparents of Akhenaten, Akhenaten, the mysterious burial in KV55 and the funerary treasures of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Before they leave the exhibition, visitors walk through an exact reconstruction of Tutankhamun's burial chamber.

"This is a special exhibition which is a must for everyone, because Basel will be the sole European venue and the exhibits will never again be seen in this particular constellation. It will certainly take another generation for an exhibition of this calibre to be staged again," said Andre Wiese, curator of the Egyptian Art Department at the Basel Museum.

"It is good timing for such a display," Hawass said, adding that with all the turbulence around the world it would bring a message of peace. Ancient Egyptians did not build their unique civilisation on war but on peace and love, he said. He added that the exhibition would reopen interest in "King Tut's curse", which might in turn encourage scholars to make further investigations into the boy-King's own mysterious death.

In closing his speech, Hawass saluted the audience with some Pharaonic words: "Ankh wedja seneb!" -- life, prosperity and health to all of you.

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